Archaeological evidence is a primary source of information about the past within particular archaeological context. By processing and interpreting such evidence archaeologists are able to obtain the approximate picture of “past human activities in an area over time” (Osu par. 1). The aim of this paper is to examine the methods for analysis and interpretation of archaeological sites, artifacts, ecofacts, and features.
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Artifacts, Ecofacts, Features, and Contexts
All sources of archaeological information can be divided into four categories: artifacts, ecofacts, features, and contexts (Hardesty and Little 54).
Artifacts are objects that have been made or shaped by man and are of archaeological significance. In order to analyze the information content of historical artifacts, it is necessary to divide them into three groups: historical documents, commodities, and ideas (Hardesty and Little 54). Artifacts that have clues about technology with which they were manufactured, or time period among other things can be considered historical documents. The majority of artifacts are consumer goods that used to have an exchange value; therefore, they can be placed in the category of commodities. Some artifacts also had a distinct meaning to the people who created them; thus, they can be treated as ideas (Hardesty and Little 56).
Ecofacts are biological materials such as animal bones and plant macrofossils that have not been altered by people but can reveal information about the environment of archaeological sites. It should be mentioned that there is no strict line dividing ecofacts and artifacts because by “analyzing factors such as species, age, body parts, and butchering technique” it is possible to determine “status and wealth differences between sites and suggest the degree of self-sufficiency or interdependence of households or settlements” (Hardesty and Little 56).
Features are another category of archaeological information, and it includes non-portable man-made structures. Building remains, structures, landscape, and artifact concentrations are some of the examples of features (Hardesty and Little 56).
Artifacts, features, and ecofacts “occur first and foremost in an archaeological context that defines the containers of archaeological information” (Hardesty and Little 61). It also determines spatial and temporal associations between archaeological objects (Lewis et al. 205). The information presented by them can be analyzed during the post-excavation stage of an archaeological project. At the analysis stage, it is necessary to divide all classes of evidence into separate categories by material and typology according to their physical attributes, especially if a specialist in a specific group of artifacts is involved in finds analysis (Grant et al. 65). The first analytical stage involves the use of parallels or regular microscopes to aid in examination. However, well-equipped excavation facilities often have Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEMs) that are more helpful at analyzing both artifacts and ecofacts. After identification and categorization all material is “quantified and recorded through drawing or photography” (Grant et al. 65).
Analysis of Inorganic Materials
Lithics are stone tools that existed before the introduction of metal. Due to their inorganic nature, they are almost indestructible and found in abundance in some archaeological assemblages. The first stage in the analysis of lithics involves examination of their surface with the help of basic geological knowledge. The rocks that are not sedimentary can be easily identified without resorting to polarizing microscope; however, other stones might require petrological analysis (Grant et al. 67).
Petrology is an analytical technique that allows locating the source of rocks and minerals. It involves cutting and polishing “a thin section of a stone or ceramic till it is about 0.02 mm thick” (Grant et al. 69). Due to the fact that crystals of different minerals have distinctive structures that can be referenced to a geological map, the examination of their characteristics allows archaeologists to establish their original source. Petrology has significantly contributed to the deepening of knowledge on exchange and economic structures of ancient civilizations by providing scientists with approximate distribution patterns and trade routes. Even though petrology can be applied for identifying brick materials and stones, it cannot be used for distinguishing obsidian and flint which look similar (Grant et al. 70).
The metallurgical analysis involves assessment of metal artifacts with the help x-rays or metallography. Metallography is an analytical technique that involves “examination of the size and shape of the grains of minerals in the material for traces of heating, working, and alloying” (Grant et al. 70). If archaeological facilities are equipped with SEMs, their use allows examining techniques that were applied during manufacture of jewelry because of magnification at 1000x.
Analysis of Organic Materials
The analysis of faunal remains helps archaeologists to better understand characteristics of the past environments and assess the contribution of animals to human exchange. Bone specialists analyzing bone assemblages have to recognize different types of material as well as animals from which they came. To this end, they have reference collections that can aid in identification. Bone specialists also establish the age and sex of cattle remnants in order to separate those animals that were kept for dairy products from those that were kept for meat (Grant et al. 70).
Information about archaeological sites often can be found in documents from the particular historical period. Therefore, in order to locate archaeological sites, it is necessary to examine documentary archives. However, it should be mentioned that records in such achieves are almost always biased. For example, property owned by religious institutions and state usually “have some of the most detailed records” (Drewett 44), whereas the existence of farmsteads may have never been recorded. Other methods of locating archaeological sites include aerial photography, historic maps, local populations, ground survey, geophysical survey, chemical survey and accidental discovery (Drewett 44).
Categorization is perhaps the most basic analytical process for dealing with archaeological materials (Bahn 29). Even though archaeologists employ many kinds of categorizations and typologies, they all can be divided into two broad categories analytic and synthetic. Analytic categorizations are concerned with particular object types that have described and recognized recurring variations. Synthetic categories, on the other hand, are used to distinguish archaeological cultures dividing them into units of study (Grant et al. 110).
The process of interpreting an archaeological site is a part of post-fieldwork processing and analysis. Transformation process used for translation of finds in archaeological reports can be divided into two stages: formation and deposition. Formation processes help to investigate how materials were acquired, manufactured, used and discarded (Grant et al. 113). Depositional processes used for interpretation of “the ways in which remains actually find their way into the ground” (Grant et al. 113).
Artifacts, ecofacts, features, and context are the main sources of information that help to obtain the picture of the past. In order to find an archaeological site, archaeologists rely on documents, aerial photography, historic maps, local populations, ground survey, geophysical survey, chemical survey and accidental discovery. They categorize all sites into two broad groups: analytic and synthetic.
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Bahn, Paul. Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2012.
Drewett, Peter. Field Archaeology: An Introduction. Routledge, 2011.
Grant, Jim, et al. The Archaeology Coursebook. Routledge, 2012.
Hardesty, Donald, and Barbara, Little. Assessing Site Significance: A Guide for Archaeologists and Historians. AltaMira Press, 2009.
Lewis, Barry, et al. Understanding Humans: Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012.
OSU. “Archaeological Analysis.” Osu.edu, Web.